Last week, Mitch McConnell went “nuclear” and set a new precedent in the Senate, limiting debate time on contentious nominees and making it much easier for Senate Republicans to approve nominees more quickly.
This week, with the rules update freshly on the books, it appears he was ready to take full advantage of it.
Senators were called in for a steady stream of votes throughout the week, ultimately approving more than ten total nominees including four district court judges, a key group of nominees that’s affected by the rules change. As Roll Call notes, the Senate had focused its energies on pushing through appeals court judges so far this Congress and only approved its first district court pick last week.
While not every confirmed nominee directly benefited from McConnell’s deployment of the “suitcase nuke” this week, the influx of district judges is a sign that the rules change is having the immediate effect that Republicans intended. They had argued that Senate Democrats were forcing them to slow-walk nominees, and that the rules update was necessary to fill an overwhelming number of openings.
Democrats, meanwhile, vigorously pushed back on this narrative, citing the numerous appeals court nominees Republicans jammed through at a breakneck pace last year — and noting that they engaged in unprecedented obstruction in order to block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from even being considered. Democrats have also expressed growing concern that the joint efforts of the White House and Senate Republicans will affect the federal judiciary for decades.
With less debate time now required for district court picks and lower-level positions in the administration, Republicans can keep many nominees moving through even faster than before.
What the rules change has done
Using a parliamentary loophole that allowed them to push through a rules change with a simple majority (what people call “going nuclear”), Republicans have amended Senate rules in order to further limit the amount of time lower-level nominees could be debated on the floor.
Previously, if lawmakers voted to limit debate on a nominee, that back-and-forth would still be able to continue for 30 hours before lawmakers would actually be able to vote to confirm the candidate. Practically speaking, because there is only so much time the Senate is in session, this meant that there were a finite number of nominees that Republicans could get through — and that’s something they wanted to change.
Republicans argued that this rules change is necessary because Democrats have gone out of their way to obstruct consideration of Trump’s nominees and used this extra debate time to do so. Democrats, meanwhile, say that Republicans have gutted other processes, like “blue slips,” that would enable them to otherwise vocalize their concern with different nominees.
Following last Wednesday’s vote, the debate on nominees is now limited to two hours rather than 30. It’s a change that Democrats had also previously made to Senate procedure in 2013 as a temporary standing order, but it’s now permanent.
While it could have taken up to four days to get nominees through the two Senate votes they previously faced, it now takes at least a day less.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer won’t talk rules changes … yet
As the Senate continues to chip away at longstanding rules and procedures, lawmakers are increasingly opening the door to even more changes down the line, including the elimination of the legislative filibuster — one of the key parliamentary rules that differentiates the Senate from the House. And this update hasn’t just been a hot topic on the Hill, it’s also emerged as a key talking point on the 2020 campaign trail.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he wasn’t eager to confront such changes just yet, however.
While Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have floated their own plans for getting rid of the filibuster and passing Medicare-for-all by blowing up Senate procedure, Schumer said he’d consider such options once Democrats were in the majority again.
“I’ve always said in terms of the rules and these things, let’s first win the majority, then we’ll make the decisions and the caucus will come together,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Schumer didn’t, however, reject either possibility outright.